The Social Costs of Living in Wildfire-Prone Areas 

With dangerous fires becoming the norm in California, the price to pay for living in and near wooded areas can no longer be ignored.

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click to enlarge Susan Piper, who chairs the Oakland Firesafe Council, doesn’t think the city is doing enough to prevent another catastrophic wildfire. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • Susan Piper, who chairs the Oakland Firesafe Council, doesn’t think the city is doing enough to prevent another catastrophic wildfire.

While destructive wildfires, in theory, help illustrate problems with standard building codes, Stewart noted that they don't necessarily lead to improvements in the regulation systems that govern homebuilding.

"After a fire, there tends to be very little interest in making new regulations or doing anything that makes it harder for people to rebuild," he explained.

Gov. Brown did at least mention the issue at a recent press conference in Redding, as the Carr Fire burned close by.

"We've got to reexamine how we manage our forests, build our houses, how we build them and where we build them, and how much we invest in fire protection services," he said.

However, county agencies are reportedly expediting permitting processes for rebuilding after last year's North Bay fires, especially if submitted plans replicate what was there before. Stewart said lawsuits against PG&E — widely blamed for starting the Wine Country firestorm — are likely to produce cash rewards for fire victims, but not soon enough to protect communities with higher-standard structures.

"By the time the lawsuits are finished, the homes will be rebuilt, and it'll look like 1990 again," he said.

Many housing developments in the WUI were built decades ago and do not meet current fire safety standards. Many have roads too narrow for fire engines.

"Up in the East Bay hills, some of those roads are so narrow and winding that I do think evacuation would still be a problem," Butsic said.

Some communities have just one road in and no second escape route. Some older subdivisions have no public water, which means firefighting vehicles must haul it in. The explosion in WUI development has come with stricter property codes — like the defensible space rule that, since 2005, has required that homeowners keep 100 feet of space surrounding their properties relatively clear of vegetation fuels, especially in the first 30 feet. Many modern homes are built of fire-resistant materials.

But even WUI developments built in compliance are not safe from the most destructive, hottest fires. Not so long ago, Stewart visited a housing development in a rural area that had been built following the highest fire safety standards. Vegetation had been cleared as required, and the homes were built of fire-resistant materials.

"They even had a second road system just for firefighters," Stewart said. "I had never seen that before."

But it didn't matter. That development was the upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood in Santa Rosa, and it had just been reduced to ashes by the Tubbs fire. It was the second time the area had been overwhelmed by flames in 53 years.

Drill, with the UC Cooperative Extension, believes government should eventually, if not now, step in and impose some level of restriction on new development in areas known to be at risk of burning.

"New developments really need to be looked at more carefully, and when new areas are being proposed for development, maybe we should have to look back at 100 years of fire history first," she said.

Pook, at East Bay MUD, said she lives in a house abutting the property of the East Bay Regional Park District. She noted that somebody needs to live in the WUI.

"There's always going to be an interface — you can't prevent that," she said. In other words, somebody will be living at the edge of a city, no matter where the boundary against the wilderness is established.

Her nearby neighbor, Martin Hevezi, also lives at the boundary of East Bay MUD property. He said he recently spent $1,000 to remove dangerous brush and trees on the property surrounding his house, which was built in the 1970s. He said he sees "half-assed" efforts from the city to do the same on its own land.

"The amount of taxes we pay to live here is pretty high, and we do expect there to be a little more effort by the city" to address dangerous vegetation, he said.

But nearby roadways are lined with overgrown trees, he said, and a recent grass-cutting endeavor along the Skyline Boulevard median left the cut vegetation in place.

"The point of cutting the grass is to get the fuel out of there and away from the houses, but they just leave it," he said.

Pook pointed out that other natural phenomena, like storms, earthquakes, and floods, threaten very particular and well understood geographic and geologic zones, and that people can choose to live there or not. Pook said when she was in the market to buy a home, she opted against areas likely to be inundated by the rising ocean.

"I chose not to buy a house in Alameda because the sea level is rising, and now it turns out I'm in an area where I have to worry about wildfires," she said.

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